When Josie was thirteen, she grew a halo. It appeared in a Religious Education class, which in retrospect Josie considered nothing more than bad luck. Their teacher, Miss Carson, was insecure and quick-tempered and was always going to react badly to a genuine miracle.
She didn’t feel anything. The first Josie knew, several kids were giggling and looking round in surprise, and she even started chuckling ready to join in the joke until she saw they were laughing at her. Miss Carson went red in the face and told her to take it off and Josie’s confusion turned into distress. She hadn’t done anything, so it was hard to understand why her teacher was offended, why everyone was so amused and why her friends were pointing at her.
Enraged, Miss Carson took her firmly by the arm, hauled her into the toilets, stood her in front of the mirror and pointed at the bright light.
“What is that?” she demanded.
Emanating from an arc about two inches above her scalp a range of fine, brilliant lights, increasing in length from the shortest by her ears to the tallest over the crown of her head were glowing and shimmering. They shone and twinkled with a smooth pace and beautiful ease.
Josie turned her head a little sideways and looked at it from an angle.
“It’s a halo, Miss,” she answered.
A fair reply given that’s exactly what it was, but not the response that was going to placate an incompetent and alarmed figure of authority like Miss Carson.
“I’ll give you halo,” she declared, “Principal’s office!”
And she marched Josie to the Principal’s office with a severity that even a thirteen-year-old could tell was inappropriate.
The Principal, Dr Nabir, was a scientific man and, having dismissed Miss Carson as quickly as respect would allow, he sat down to study Josie’s head. He examined her scalp, passed different materials through the lights and asked Josie a series of unconnected questions. One of those questions stuck in her mind for many years. Had she eaten anything strange recently? As if a marginal prawn cocktail could cause the spontaneous appearance of lights above the head. After a time he asked her what she thought it was, so she told him.
“It’s a halo.”
Nabir phoned everyone; her parents, the local university and the emergency services. From that point on, Josie had little time to consider the halo itself. Events tumbled over each other, gathering pace. The halo itself ceased to be a problem — the problem was always people’s reactions to the halo.
First, and most insurmountably, came her parents. Her mother saw the halo as an affliction; an ostentatious and unwelcome sign that her daughter was in some manner ‘different’. She was horrified and kept asking, “What have they done to you, baby?”, implying Josie was the victim of a well-intentioned but misguided teaching initiative. When, eventually, her mother realised that no-one was to blame, and that Josie was actually proud of it, her horror turned to quiet resentment. She blamed the halo for creating a distance between herself and her daughter, but that distance was never to close.
Her father’s reaction was equally awkward but in many ways just as foreseeable. To counteract his wife’s initial hysteria he treated it as a joke, smirking and bobbing his eyebrows up and down as if to express, “What larks, eh?”. But eventually the halo undermined his rigid understanding of how the world worked and he sank into a depression.
As for everyone else; they became more predictable as time went on. Scientists could not stop producing theories about it, theologians took up extremes of opinion and argued about it and documentary makers got her face on the cover of Time magazine with ever-more original angles on it.
Josie watched the whole manic parade, bemused. Fame got her invited to events around the world and sometimes she would find herself in a hotel room unsure which city she was in. She would sit at the dressing table mirror, watch the lights playing above her head and realise they were the only things that made any sense. She was asked by a journalist in Arkansas whether she was a virgin. A discharged mental patient in the Philippines shot at her with a handgun, but missed. She was applauded, vilified, feted and dismissed. Everyone offered a definition; most people an explanation. Almost no one agree with Josie.
“It’s just a halo,” she would say.
“This phenomenon of lights.”
“No, it’s a halo.”
Then, at the age of 23 she realised she’d made enough money from interviews and product endorsements. She stopped attending the premieres, product launches and film festivals. With no money to be made from her, people quickly disappeared. When the partying ended, one sweet man remained. She married him. They made a home.
And one summer’s day she found herself sitting on a hillside, watching clouds overhead constantly becoming. When she was leaving, she looked down and noticed that the halo didn’t cast a shadow. In ten years, she’d never noticed something so simple. She was caught by that moment, and she marvelled at its existence and everything it had brought her. “What a miracle,” she thought.
And then, for the first time, she saw the world around herself in the same way she saw the halo.
“What a miracle that there is anything at all!”
And in that moment, she understood. Not just the halo, but everything. And the world in front of her seemed to shine, to twinkle like a moonlit lake, and a feeling bloomed through her body like an ecstasy of existence. With tears of joy on her cheeks, she said it again,
“What a miracle — that there is anything at all.”
Later, when she reached home, she found her husband in the kitchen, tasting a newly uncorked wine. He smiled, but he was puzzled by her expression.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she replied.
A P Charman writes fiction for adults and children and lives in Surrey, England with his wife and daughter.